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FA warns that top English women’s clubs could fold due to virus-related financial pressure

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We don’t know which, or where, or even if, but it’s a potentially scary outcome for a league that was experiencing massive growth this season.

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

The women’s professional football game is experiencing a renaissance in England, thanks to the success of the Women’s World Cup last summer, and England’s run to the semifinals. Interest in the top levels of women’s football is spiking, to the extent that there were several high-profile matches that took place in front of major crowds at established club stadiums this summer.

Tottenham Hotspur Women played three of those matches — away games against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and vs. West Ham at the London Stadium, and a North London Derby against Arsenal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Up until the coronavirus shuttered most sports across the globe, it was looking like a great time for women’s football to start getting the recognition it deserved.

But as we’ve seen on the men’s side, shutting football down has had the knock-on effect of putting severe financial restraints on football clubs, especially smaller ones that rely on gate revenue in order to make ends meet. According to the Guardian, there’s now fear that those financial worries could stretch to clubs in the women’s game too, even in the top two divisions — the Women’s Super League and the FA Women’s Championship. The FA is concerned that a further delay in restarting football could cause clubs in the top two flights to fold.

Already, the FA has announced that this season’s results will be voided for all women’s leagues level 3 and below. That means there won’t be any promotion to the FAWC (level 2), or relegation from that league. It also means that, should a top flight WSL club fold, the FA would have to decide whether to open up the licensing process for clubs in the lower leagues to apply for membership in the semi-professional FAWC, or the fully-professional top flight, the way they did prior to the 2018-19 season.

The Guardian article doesn’t make clear exactly what clubs could be affected or at risk of failing, but we can take a guess. Financial information for the women’s game are almost impossible to find online, but it’s unlikely that any of the “big four” clubs in the WSL — Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United — would be at risk of shuttering. Moreover, it would seem as though clubs with established Premier League men’s teams (such as Tottenham) would be more able to supplement the finances of their component women’s sides, as their finances are a small fraction of the balance sheet of the men’s teams. This, however, is emphatically not a given.

However, there are women’s clubs in the top tiers that are either independent entities with no parent organization, or are affiliated with a club that is not itself in the top flight of men’s football. The Championship’s London Bees, for example, is affiliated with Barnet FC, whose men’s side competes in the Tier 5 National League. Coventry United is another Championship club on the women’s side, but the men’s team plays in tier 9. Neither club would likely be the recipients of a significant financial bailout from their parent organizations. This list could also potentially include WSL sides such as Reading or Bristol City, as well as FAWC sides including Durham or Lewes.

This is, of course, pure speculation. The clubs mentioned could be financially healthy enough to weather the storm and come back to participate next season. But possibly not — there do appear to be some clubs legitimately struggling, which is why the FA is bracing for some potentially significant clubs to fold.

It’s also not clear whether the FA would be willing to do any sort of bailout of struggling women’s sides who run the risk of closing their doors due to no fault of their own. The EFL, for example, has already announced a £50m bailout for struggling clubs in tiers 2-4. It wouldn’t take a whole lot of money to keep a struggling FAWC or even WSL club afloat for another season. The idea of bailing out women’s clubs is not mentioned by the Guardian. I wonder whether it is being considered by the FA.

A decision on what to do, if anything, with the rest of the season in the WSL and FAWC will be decided later on “after further consultation.” Hopefully a way to protect member clubs will follow on the heels of that decision. It would be the least the FA could do for women’s leagues that are only now beginning to flourish.